The Christian Explanation for the Twelve Days of Christmas

12 Days of Christmas



It is Christmas Season, a time when people of faith celebrate the birth of Christ. Let us face it, notwithstanding the effort to secularize Christmas and the reason for the holidays, there is no Christmas and no holidays if it were not for the birth of Christ.

Christmas also is a time for singing Christmas carols and Christmas songs. One of the favorite songs at this time of the year is The Twelve Days of Christmas. And one of the favorite traditions of the season is to provide a Christian explanation for the Twelve Days of Christmas.

This tradition appears every year in one or two newspapers and in countless emails sent by people of faith to people of faith. This year I have even seen this Christian explanation for the Twelve Days of Christmas in a church bulletin.

Do you know the meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas? No? Well, here is the explanation.

The famous song was written with hidden meanings in mind for Roman Catholic children. Between 1558 and 1829, Catholics were prohibited in England to practice their faith. Punishments for being caught with anything in writing that proved one’s adherence to the Catholic faith meant imprisonment, hanging from a gallows, or worse. The author of The Twelve Days of Christmas wrote the song to help young Catholics secretly learn—and memorize—the tenets of their faith.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me” refers to God himself as our True Love and Me as every baptized believer. The Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus Christ who symbolizes a mother bird, which feigns injury to protect her helpless nestlings. The symbol comes from Jesus’ words written in Luke 13:34, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

The other “gifts” in the song hold these meanings:

2 Turtle Doves (the Old and New Testaments, bearing witness to God’s redeeming work of salvation to mankind);

3 French Hens (the virtues: faith, hope, and love; and the trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);

4 Calling Birds (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which proclaim the Good News of God’s reconciliation to himself through his Son Jesus Christ);

5 Gold Rings (the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament which give the historic account of mankind’s sinful failure and God’s responding grace);

6 Geese A-laying (the six days of creation that confess God as creator and sustainer of the world);

7 Swans A-swimming (the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion);

8 Maids A-milking (the eight beatitudes as listed in Matthew 5:3-10);

9 Ladies Dancing (the nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control);

10 Lords A-leaping (the ten commandments);

11 Pipers Piping (the 11 faithful apostles, excluding Judas Iscariot, the 12th apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss);

12 Drummers Drumming (the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed).

This explanation of the meaning of the words of the song would be of great value if it were true.

It is hard to kill a myth because a myth keeps on circulating from person to person and those who propagate the myth never check the facts to discover whether the myth is true or false. Today, the Internet has the power to keep a myth alive and spread it to millions of unsuspecting people who will pass on the same myth to thousands, if not millions, of gullible people.

The spiritualization of “The 12 Days of Christmas” is one of those urban legends that is circulated through the Internet and passed on from person to person through email. If you want to read the true urban legend behind this song, visit Snopes).

In the conclusion of the article, Snopes writes:

Plenty of writers continue to expound upon “the beauty and truly biblical and spiritual meanings locked away in this wonderful song that puts Christ into Christmas where he doesn’t appear to be.” Perhaps those who consider this tale to be “beautiful” and “inspirational” (despite its obviously dubious truthfulness) should consider its underlying message: That one group of Jesus’ followers had to hide their beliefs in order to avoid being tortured and killed by another group of Jesus’ followers. Of all the aspects of Christianity to celebrate at Christmastime, that doesn’t sound like a particularly good one to emphasize.

There are several lessons to be learned from this article. The most important lesson is the one that every journalist learns in journalism school before writing a story such as this one. The lesson is this: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Note: This post was based on a post published in 2006 and republished in

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